By Carol McGruder
Just as cigarettes were finally decreasing in popularity, vaping has come along and made tobacco cool again.
From 2011-2015, the use of e-cigarettes (or e-cigs) among high school students increased nationwide from 1.5 percent to 16 percent — and this number just keeps going up. In fact, e-cigs were the most commonly used form of tobacco among California high school students in 2016.
But why is this happening? In short, flavors. The tobacco industry uses sweet, enticing flavors with fun names like Captain Berry Crunch, Sour Gummy Worms and Mermaid Tears attracting kids to try these products and setting them up for a dangerous, life-long tobacco addiction. While e-cigs are relatively new, using flavors to get people hooked on tobacco isn’t.
The tobacco industry has been using menthol, the “original flavored tobacco,” to get people addicted for generations. Menthol was added to cigarettes nearly 100 years ago to give them a minty, fresh taste that masks the harshness of tobacco, making it harder for people to quit.
For generations, the tobacco industry targeted menthol cigarettes at the African-American community through aggressive marketing and advertising — and the result is still evident today — 70 percent of all menthol smokers in California are African American, a much higher percentage than in other groups.
But with menthol cigarettes, teens still had to buy them at retail stores, and they still looked and smelled like “traditional cigarettes” — giving parents, families and teachers a fair chance to spot them. Now, e-cigarettes do not look or smell like traditional tobacco — some even look like USB drives and pens. They’re also purchased in a new way — online.
In fact, when kids try to buy e-cigarettes online, they are successful 94 percent of the time. The internet-savvy teens of today can easily bypass the age gates on e-cigarette and flavored e-juice websites.
Teens are even getting help to avoid getting caught. YouTube is full of tutorials that teach kids how to order a vape without mom and dad finding out.
The instructions encourage teens to “order your Vape on Amazon” and “tell your parents not to open the package because you’re making an unboxing video.” Other tutorials show kids how to hide their e-cigs at home or school and how to conceal their vapor smoke.
The industry claims that it makes their products for adults, but the truth is undeniable — they need kids to use their products to become the next generation of customers. The tobacco industry must recruit new smokers to take the place of the people who are dying or who quit every day.
California’s smoking rate has decreased four times faster than any other U.S. state — making its smoking rate the second lowest in the U.S. — but e-cigarettes changed all that. They contain addictive, harmful chemicals known to cause a host of illnesses. And when kids use them, they are three times more likely to try cigarettes a year later.
Menthol was originally used by the tobacco industry as a “starter product” to get people addicted to their deadly products. A far wider number of flavors are being used for the same reason now.
Understand clearly: Addiction is not a phase. Our children will outgrow adolescent behavior; outgrowing a deadly addiction is a much more devastating challenge.
Carol McGruder is co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council.